A few months ago, my husband and I took our 22-month-old son to visit a day-care center. We arrived unannounced at a place that all of my working-mom friends rave about and were graciously welcomed (nice!), asked for photo ID (reassuring!), and given a thorough tour (nothing to hide). We learned about feeding, naptime, and outdoor play, and when our guide asked if we had questions, we looked at each other, shrugged, and said, "Nope!" It never occurred to me to take along a list of questions, nor would I have known what to ask. "We spend so much time researching what car to get, where to buy a house, or where to vacation," says Iris Chin Ponte, Ph.D., director of the Henry Frost Children's Program in Belmont, Massachusetts. "But when it comes to looking for child care, many parents don't know where to start." After reading this guide, you will!
Day care in someone's house appeals to parents who want their Miss Giggles or Mr. Stinkypants to flourish in a personal environment. "Many parents like this setting for babies because it feels so nurturing," says Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). "Plus, the hours can be more flexible than at a day-care center."
It has a business license and an inspection report you can view. They show that the state has inspected the home and run background checks on the provider, and that the provider-to-child ratio is within state limits (you can check guidelines at ChildCareAware.org and search for accredited providers at NAFCC.org; 3-to-1 is the ideal).
The provider has been certified. Although experience as a mom is a fine quality in a family day-care provider, it's not enough. Check that she's trained in CPR and infant first aid, and that she takes refresher courses annually. Ask how many kids she accepts, max (including drop-ins). If you expect the place to serve as preschool later, inquire about the provider's education and experience.
It's okay to drop by for a tour. Do this unannounced, and check to see how the child-care space is set up, how clean the kitchen is, and how kids interact with the provider. Show up around mealtime or naptime. "That's when kids get tired and cranky, and how the provider handles the situation will say a lot," Smith says.
The home is babyproofed. Inspect a provider's house for any safety hazards. Ask how many smoke detectors are in the house (as in your own home, there should be at least one per floor) and about an emergency-evacuation plan. Check that outdoor play areas are fenced and gated securely. "If a provider resents the hard questions, then leave," Smith says.
You know who else will have access to your child. Find out about other adults living in the home. Also, ask whether the child-care provider ever leaves her charges with someone else while she runs an errand, and how often this might happen. You'll need to be as comfortable with the provider's backup as you are with her.
References are freely provided. Ask at least two parents what they love about the care provider -- and what, if anything, they wish were different.
It's a screen-free zone. Children who are younger than 2 years old should not be watching any television, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. "There's research on the increase of ADHD characteristics in young kids who watch a lot of TV," notes Jill Stamm, Ph.D., author of Bright From the Start.
If you're looking for a lot of socialization and structure, this option's for you. Many centers offer extended drop-off and pickup hours (although extra hours will probably cost you a bit more). It's also comforting to know you won't be caught off guard by a solo provider who calls in sick. Make sure:
The facility is fully licensed and accredited. Day-care regulations vary from state to state, but a licensed program should, at the minimum, meet state health and safety standards and have strict caregiver-child ratios (these ratios apply to family-run day care as well as franchised day-care centers).
To find accredited programs in your area that voluntarily exceed the minimum state requirements, check out NAEYC.org and NECPA.net.
There's a daily schedule. Young infants thrive on routine and structure. But there should be free play for older babies as well, says Barbara Rigney-Hill, associate professor of family and consumer sciences at California State University in Northridge. "Children also need time for discovery."
The curriculum is nicely varied. If you're planning to keep your child there for the long haul, it's good to know now whether the center emphasizes early academics. One sign to induce confidence: There's an activity schedule posted for the week, which indicates forethought.
The kids are varied too. Diversity is a priority for families who want their children to feel that they fit in as they get older and start to notice their classmates, as well as for families who want their kids to grow up understanding that not everyone has the same background, beliefs, or skin color.
You'll get daily updates. From feedings to poops to naps, you want to stay in the loop. Some centers give daily "report cards," but have no fear; they don't dole out grades!
A babysitter who comes to your home can be an excellent choice for parents who have more than one child (the rates won't double with two kids); who have unpredictable work schedules or a child with special needs; or who'd like a care provider to also do light child-related housekeeping, such as laundry and cooking. Make sure she has:
A good history If you go through an agency, they'll do educational and background screenings of the candidates. If you find a sitter through word of mouth, ask how much education and child-care training she has (including infant CPR) and if she can share a recent background check. If not, run one; Nanny.org has a list of companies that do checks. Ask for references from former employers as well.
A few hobbies Asking about a potential sitter's interests isn't idle chitchat; you'll get clues as to what leisure activities she may plan for your baby, says Susan Tokayer, copresident of the International Nanny Association. If she enjoys cycling, for instance, she'll probably want to take your child outside.
A happy home life As Tokayer points out, "You don't want someone who's going to have daily drama."
Crisis-management skills Ask for an example of how she responded in an emergency. "You need a person who has demonstrated she can act quickly, stay calm, and make the right decision," says Tokayer. If she doesn't know to call 911 first and you second, keep looking!
Set some general guidelines. There's no need to treat Grandma like an employee (spare her the staff handbook), but be up-front about things such as expected hours and the daily routine.
Put her on the payroll. She might refuse pay, but you owe it to her to ask. If she says no, regularly acknowledge her work and compensate her in other ways--say, with a trip or restaurant gift certificates.
Discuss safety concerns. Brief Grandma on current safety measures like putting Baby to sleep on his back and always buckling the changing table and stroller safety belts. If she's on her own turf, childproof it.
Make sure she's up to the task. Holding, feeding, and changing a baby is doable, but soon your tot will be more active--a lot more active! Agree to regroup in six months or so to see how things are going.
Arrive home at your expected time, and be sure to call on the rare occasion when you're running late. Yep, your sitter has a life beyond your baby.
Forget about Mary Poppins! Think about it: It's challenging for you to care for your child, do load upon load of laundry, and keep his room clean; same goes for your sitter. She may be a professional, but she's human.
Pay her the going rate. You want her to feel like a million, not a bargain.
Make her comfy in your home. Invite her to nosh from the fridge and make necessary phone calls. After all, she's your new part-time family member -- and a valuable one, at that.
Trust her, and make it clear that you do. It's fine to request daily notes, but asking her to keep an overly detailed log is a sure way to send her screaming from the house.
No matter what kind of provider you're interviewing, find out the following to make sure your child-care styles are in sync.
What's your approach to eating and sleeping routines? If your baby chows on demand, and your provider is bent on feeding her every three hours no matter what, you may have to change your weekend habits (or find a different provider).
Do you hold babies during feedings? Perhaps you don't want your little one propped in a bouncy seat throughout mealtime.
How often do you read books? Even the youngest babies benefit from storytime.
How do you handle babies when they're inconsolable? Patience is one of the most important qualities.
How would you describe your personality? Look for hints that a candidate will be flexible enough to follow your instructions.
Do you often touch base with parents? If getting phone, text, or email updates is important to you, make sure a provider is amenable to that. Just bear in mind that time spent communicating with you is time not fully focused on your child.
The freak-out: What if my baby loves the caregiver more? "I felt so sad when I first returned from maternity leave, because our nanny was the one getting to spend all the time with my son."Elise Bender-Segall, Livingston, New Jersey
Fear not! "No matter how close the baby gets to his caregiver, your mother-child bond is irreplaceable," says Lisa Noll, Ph.D., a psychologist at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston, who has helped soothe many a new mom. It's also reassuring to know that babies of full-time working moms don't develop more slowly (as previously suspected) than their peers, according to a study by the Teacher's College at Columbia University School of Social Work, in New York City.
The freak-out: Baby needs me! "I was concerned that the day-care staffers looking after my baby wouldn't know about the particular things he liked. If he started crying, would they remember that looking out the window at trees usually helps him calm down?"Hannah Ross, Reston, Virginia
Fear not! Create a little "book" about your child--Introducing Calvin!--and list the toys, songs, and other stuff he likes and dislikes, Dr. Noll suggests. Tell the caregivers about techniques that soothe your sweetie; they'll be happy to know them.
The freak-out:I'll be out of touch with my child's life. "I really didn't want to go back to work and have someone else take care of my baby. I knew and adored her every move."Sara Brosious, Wilmington, Delaware
Fear not! Create new mommy-and-me rituals, like reading at bedtime. Ask your caregiver to capture any milestone moments on her phone and send them to you. You can also Facetime or Skype on your breaks!
The freak-out: I'll miss my baby so much, I won't be able to focus on my work. "I put my son into day care when he was 12 weeks old. To keep myself focused, I hung my favorite photos of him on the wall outside my cubicle so he was a topic of conversation and not the subject of a pity party!"Alisa Bonsignore, Pleasanton, California
Fear not! Besides photos, Dr. Noll suggests a baby journal: At lunch, or during moments when you find yourself thinking about something adorable your munchkin did, write down your thoughts and feelings and then go back to your day. And plan special after-work time (a dance party in the living room!) so you have something to look forward to.
The freak-out: I'm afraid I won't miss my baby -- and I should, shouldn't I? "I was thrilled to be home with my newborn, but after eight weeks, I was ready for adult conversations again. When I went back to work, I felt guilty that I didn't feel guilty!"Donna Williams, New York City
Fear not! Enjoying your job (and the perks that come with it) doesn't make you a bad mother. In fact, your ultimate goal is to be so confident that your baby's in great hands that you don't worry at all. "A child who is well-cared-for and emotionally well-adjusted will thrive," Dr. Noll says. Get more smart answers to your child-care questions at americanbaby.com/sittersolution.
The month before you're due to return
If you've gone the sitter route, create an agreement. It should outline what you each expect from the arrangement.
A couple of weeks before
Do a test run. It will ease the transition--and your mind! Invite the sitter over for an hour or so while you run to the grocery store, or drop your child off at the day-care center for an hour or two so it feels familiar.
About a week before
Get gear together. Gather the items on the day-care center's checklist, pack them into a knapsack or tote, and put it by the door. If you're using an in-home sitter, make sure your supplies are fully stocked. Running out for diapers and wipes or formula the night before your first day at work: no fun.
A few days before
Start practicing your new morning routine. Consider who should shower first and who should feed and dress the baby--and remember to build in an extra ten minutes for last-minute surprises (think poop).
The first day at work
Quickly say goodbye to your cutie and leave. Lingering will make separation harder for both of you. If you have to call five times, that's fine--you're adjusting too.
Originally published in American Baby magazine in October 2011. Updated in May 2014.
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